A place to play: Ultima Gaming maintains loyal following
From the outside, Ultima Gaming looks just like any other retail store on Perham's Main Street. An "open" sign flashes next to the store's posted hours as traffic steadily runs in-and-out of the post office across the street.
On a typical evening, just as other stores are winding down and locking up, Ultima becomes a haven for gamers of all sorts. On any given night, the store's event center and gaming lounge is home to Dungeons and Dragons players role playing their way through a quest, a Nintendo tournament with a cash prize, or friends casually playing and swapping Magic the Gathering trading cards.
"I'm not trying to just sell stuff," said store owner David Jopp. Instead, Jopp said he's focused on making a physical space where gamers are actually together, not just playing alone at home.
To the uninitiated, the 30 feet separating Main Street and Ultima's gaming lounge feels like a mile. Banners hanging from the ceiling feature stylized art depicting elves and sorcerers from the Magic card franchise next to an enlarged Pokemon logo. Beyond that, a lair with black paint on the walls (to reduce screen glare) is home to the store's console arcade. Numerous TVs and computers are on hand for tournaments or available to rent.
Robbie Olson, a Ultima customer, said the store is "a place we can all go to make it happen."
The 'it' Olson is referring to is Magic, a trading card game that started in 1993, which has now ballooned to over 20 million players worldwide.
Magic players use spells and creatures to attack opponents, drawing randomly from a deck of 60 to 100 cards, which is assembled from 20,000 possible cards in circulation.
While a playable deck costs around $30, a competitive deck runs in the thousands of dollars. The most Olson ever paid for a single card was $800.
Each card is either worth pennies or is priceless depending on how many were printed, its power and then its popularity within the community. Even social media and memes can suddenly increase the value of certain cards, Olson said.
"Real estate and Magic — those are the things that go up in value, gold fluctuates," he said.
The stereotype of nerds living in their mom's basement couldn't be further from reality at Ultima.
In fact, the majority of players at a casual tournament last week were adults with careers and spouses. Before play began, suitcases, backpacks and binders were sprawled on tables around the room as each player made sure their deck was in order.
At 5:30, everyone took a seat at their randomly assigned table and began to play, but not before placing a foam mat in front of themselves to protect their cards from diminishing in value.
When Ultima opened, Olson and a coalition of fellow gamers asked Jopp to stock magic cards, "then it just fell down hill," he said. "We finally had a place where we could sit and do it without being looked at like a total neckbeard."
Olson said Ultima fosters a communal gathering of like minded individuals, such as the Lions Club or a bar "they're all the same mindset."
That mindset was apparent as about 20 people from all backgrounds and skill levels made themselves comfortable.
Players say the community that Ultima fosters in Perham is much friendlier than Fargo, which can be hyper-competitive and discourages newcomers.
"Instead of having everything a small clique, where you just have your six friends, this is welcome to anybody," Olson said.
Jopp said Perham isn't big enough to support a store like Ultima, but its central location draws gamers from around the region.
"It's pulling in really big numbers for a tiny town," Olson said.
Last Thursday, the store was simultaneously host to a Dungeons and Dragons game and the store's first weekly Super Smash Bros. Tournament, in which Jopp himself got in on the action. In the middle of a game, Jopp was told that the store had a customer. Without taking his eyes off the screen, he asked if it was anyone he knew. After beating his opponent, Jopp stood up, gave him a fist bump, and walked away to tend the store.
While gamers are often subject to judgement and ridicule, Olson said that's not the case in Perham.
"No one has a clue what's going on here," he said.
Gamers can follow Ultima Gaming's page on Facebook and join "Lakes Area Gaming", the official store group to follow in-store events and new releases.